Why are there so many viola jokes?

Considering the title of my blog, this post feels like it’s been a long time coming. Here comes the question asked on a regular basis by violists, why are there so many viola jokes? If you type “viola jokes” into Google, there is an almost endless supply of jokes highlighting how they never play in tune,  they can’t count and how happy everyone is when the case is closed. Nowadays we just accept that, if you chose to play the viola, you accept the jokes, but was this always the case?

Viola jokes are thought to have started in 18th Century when the viola part was just a filler which attracted a lot of people who were not musically talented enough to play the violin or cello parts. There is also the story of Francesco Geminiani from 1714 who was appointed head of the orchestra in Naples but, after proving too unruly, was demoted to playing viola.

The main problem with viola jokes is the how unoriginal they are. Violists have been hearing these jokes all their viola playing lives (and may have said them if they started on violin) so, yes, we’ve heard that joke many times. But at least we can respond with “Why are viola jokes so short? So violinists can understand them!”

So, while we may be the subject of many jokes and everyone questions why we play viola, we violists know that it’s the best instrument and we wouldn’t change it for anything! Don’t let the jokes keep you down, just keep being the best section of the orchestra!

Playing Related Injuries

As someone who has suffered from a playing related injury, I’ve wanted to write a post about this for a while. I want to share my experience and what I’ve learned in the hope that I might be able to help other musicians.

My injury started in about October 2012, just before my auditions for conservatoires. I noticed that my shoulders were aching after my practice, but I just assumed it was because I was doing more practice than normal and didn’t take any notice of it. Big mistake! By the end of the month I couldn’t even play viola for 15 minutes without being in severe pain. My parents and I tried applying deep heat lotion but it had no effect so we went to see a doctor. Her first reaction was to advise me to stop playing which obviously wasn’t going to happen. She therefore gave me some strong painkillers so that I could get through my auditions and told me to stop playing for a month after my last audition.

When I came back to playing viola in January 2013 I found that the problem was still there and was no better. I then went to see a different doctor who referred me to physiotherapy. I was in physiotherapy until the end of May 2013 and, it seemed that my shoulders were getting better and I was excited to be going to Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in September.

In October 2013, the problem happened again during my first orchestra project. I remember going to my individual lesson and having to stop about 20 minutes in as I just couldn’t hold my viola up any longer. My teacher came with me to see the head of department who offered to pull me out of the orchestra project. Although I knew that this would have been the sensible thing to do, I didn’t want to take that option as I didn’t want to appear weak or less of a musician than the others involved in the project. I just about managed to get through the concert and then, after a day or two of rest, my shoulders seemed to be alright again.

Over my first and second years at Trinity Laban, I would have occasional pains in my shoulders. In the last term of my second year I realised that it was mainly when I’d been playing sitting down that I was getting pain. I went to see the Alexander Technique teacher at Trinity Laban who was kind enough to give me some individual lessons. These were very helpful and I’m very grateful to him for giving up his time to help me. However, they weren’t a permanent solution. I therefore resigned myself to the thought that this would be something that I would be dealing with throughout my career.

In July this year I went on a 2 week course led by Ivo van der Werff which was an amazing course. I made some great friends and I learned so much, including how to deal with my shoulder pain. In my individual lessons on the course, we looked at how I can release tension in my whole body and just allow myself to do what I need to do to play the viola. He said to me that he also suffers from shoulder problems and he showed me some exercises that he does to help. It was wonderful to hear that, just because I suffer from shoulder pain doesn’t mean I can’t achieve what I want to do. I no longer felt alone.

The main thing that I’ve learned from this is that, as musicians, we have to be constantly aware of what our body is telling us. If we feel tension, aching or pain anywhere, stop and think about what you’re doing and how this could be causing this. Don’t try and carry on thinking it will correct itself, it won’t! And don’t be afraid to ask for the help that you need. Asking for help and stopping if something is wrong is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. No matter what level of musician you are, your health is far more important than finishing the rehearsal or the extra few minutes of practice time. Nothing is worth pushing yourself to keep playing through pain.

My New Viola

A few months ago, my teacher at Trinity Laban said the words that all musicians dread…”I think it might be time to get a new instrument.” So that was that, it was time to begin the search for a new instrument.

Over the summer, my parents and I went to Cardiff Violins and we weren’t disappointed. When we arrived we were shown into a room with about 30 violas for me to try. I quickly found a favourite, a 16 inch viola made by Andrzej Kalata. After taking the viola on loan from and showing it to my teacher, we were all in agreement that it was the right viola for me. I’m so grateful, to my teacher, my family, to Andrzej Kalata and to Cardiff Violins for everyone they individually did so that I could be the owner of this wonderful viola. I have decided to name him Dmitri, and here he is.

Blackheath Sept 2015

All that remains is to say goodbye to my wonderful old viola, Juliet. I hope that your new owner loves playing you just as much as I did.

The Three Choirs Festival

The Three Choirs Festival has been held annually since the 18th century and is one of the oldest classical music festivals in the world. It rotates between the three cathedrals of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford and, this year, it was held in Worcester. I was lucky enough to sing in two of the concerts in the festival this year, the first with the Rodolfus Choir, and the second with the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir.

The rehearsals for Rodolfus Choir events are always intense and these were no exception. We started rehearsing on the afternoon of Sunday 27th July and the concert was on the morning of Wednesday 30th July. During this time we had to master many pieces of music including ‘There is an old belief’ – Parry, ‘…which was the son of…’ Part and ‘Take Him Earth for Cherishing’ – Howells as well as blending all the individual voices into one sound. This was a challenging task as, for each event that the Rodolfus Choir does, different people sing. Whilst this is a great way to meet fellow musicians, it makes the tasks of blending and balancing all the more difficult. Despite this, we managed to come together as a choir and give a great performance.  It was lovely to talk to some of the audience members afterwards, all of whom were very complimentary and keen to know more about the Rodolfus Choir and how we work. So with of the two concerts down I could now start to look ahead to the performance of Elgar’s The Apostles.

And it certainly wasn’t a disappointment! With a brief rehearsal in the afternoon (in the words of Adrian Partington trying to rehearse a 2hour 20minute piece in 2hours 40minutes is definitely a challenge) it was a massive success. As I was singing in the youth choir, we only sang for the opening and ending of the piece but it was still a fantastic experience. I expected to enjoy listening to the piece as I’ve loved every other piece of Elgar’s music that I’ve heard but I absolutely loved it. Adrian described it in the rehearsal as an opera rather than an oratorio and it certainly has all the drama of an opera! This concert was also a chance to briefly catch up with the girl choristers of Worcester, who I sang with for five years before starting at Trinity Laban.

The Worcester Girl Choristers

The Worcester Girl Choristers


The Three Choirs Festival was brilliant and I hope to be involved in the Hereford one next year!

Mahler’s 8th Symphony

On 29th June, I was lucky enough to perform Mahler’s 8th Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Voices and the Rodolfus Choir. This was a fantastic experience and one that I’ll never forget! This symphony was originally called the “Symphony of a Thousand” as it was originally performed by 1000 musicians! It was also the last of Mahler’s works to be premiered in his lifetime. Whilst we didn’t manage to fit 1000 people into the Festival Hall we did manage to get about 350.

The Rodolfus Choir started rehearsing on the Thursday before with all day rehearsals on Thursday and Friday and morning rehearsals on Saturday and Sunday. Although they were long days and tiring all the hard work was definitely worth it! Our first rehearsal with Esa-Pekka Salonen was on the Friday evening and, although we were all shattered by this point, his energy and enthusiasm for the piece were contagious.

Here is a link to the page on the Philharmonia Orchestra’s website about the concert which has links to the reviews of the concert http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/482/london/royal_festival_hall/29_june_2014/salonen_closes_1314_season

It was a incredible experience performing in a sold out concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The applause lasted for 10 minutes at the end of the piece and we all came of the stage beaming with pride. I had a great time meeting members of the Rodolfus Choir and Philharmonia Voices and I hope to see them again soon!


Chamber Music

Anyone that knows me will know that I love chamber music. So, in light of the chamber music assessments at Trinity over the last couple of days, I thought I’d explain why I really love chamber music.

One of the main reasons why I love it is because of the variety of music available. Chamber music can be anything from duos and trios to octets! Almost any combination of instruments is possible including a viola quartet! Even once you’ve got the number of people in your group and instruments sorted you’ve then got to decide what to play. For example, string quartet music ranges from Haydn and Mozart, to Shostakovich and Copland. I doubt I shall ever get bored playing chamber music as there’s just so much of it!

Also, everyone in the group is equally important and has a say in how the group plays the music. No one makes all the decisions about expression, phrasing, dynamics, speed etc. All the parts are equally important, whether you’re playing constant semiquavers or semibreves, if it wasn’t important to the music it wouldn’t be there! Everyone has sole responsibility for their part yet you still have to listen to the other parts and make sure the interesting parts can be heard. It’s the perfect combination of solo and orchestral playing as the skills from both disciplines are required.

I also enjoy playing in less conventional ensembles, such as a viola quartet. There are some slightly more normal ensembles than that though! For example, this year I’ve been playing in a trio consisting of violin, viola and piano. We’ve been looking at Mozart’s K498 (Kegelstatt) trio which, although written for clarinet instead of violin, was published in 1788 for violin, viola and piano. Working with a pianist in a chamber ensemble was a new experience for me this year and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I can’t wait to broaden my horizons and play  in many different chamber music ensembles in the next few years.

So those are the main reasons why I love chamber music. To finish of here’s a link to one of my favourite pieces of chamber music, Shostakovitch’s 8th String Quartet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3m5ohobcKb8

CoLab 2014 – Musical Opera

So the main reason I decided to start a blog was because of my CoLab assessment. CoLab is a 2 week long festival which all the students of Trinity Laban conservatoire take part in. Everyone is assigned to a project, which is usually about a week in length, and each project is then given a chance to perform what they’ve been working on over the week. The way CoLab is assessed is by self-evaluation and part of this is to document the progress of your project throughout the week. Although I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea at first, I decided to do mine as a blog.

For my first year of CoLab my project was Musical Opera which involved looking at how the two genres could be combined to create a performance. I was very excited about this project as I’ve had some experience of playing in pit orchestras and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The project was proposed by one of my flatmates and he wanted to create a performance based on Roald Dahl’s short story ‘Bitch’. I really enjoyed the project as it gave me a chance to perform genres of music that I love playing and I got to work with some fantastic musicians who I wouldn’t have met had it not been for this project.

As I wasn’t able to get this blog up and running in time for my asssessment deadline, I created my CoLab blog on tumblr. Here’s the link to my tumblr blog about my experience of CoLab this year  http://alexishutchinsoncolab2014.tumblr.com/

I had a fantastic time during CoLab this year, both when I was working on my project, and when I was able to go and listen to free concerts from some of the other projects. Bring on CoLab 2015!